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Cellphones Government Your Rights Online

Cell Phones: Tracking Devices That Happen To Make Calls 196

Posted by Soulskill
from the or-in-some-cases-just-tracking-devices dept.
An anonymous reader writes "An article in the NY Times argues that the devices we call 'cell phones' should instead be called 'trackers.' It would help remind the average user that whole industries have sprung up around the mining and selling of their personal data — not to mention the huge amount of data requested by governments. Law professor Eben Moglen goes a step further, saying our cell phones are effectively robots that use us for mobility. 'They see everything, they're aware of our position, our relationship to other human beings and other robots, they mediate an information stream around us.' It's interesting to see such a mainstream publication focus on privacy like this; the authors say that since an objects name influences how people think about the object, renaming 'cell phones' could be an simple way to raise privacy awareness."
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Cell Phones: Tracking Devices That Happen To Make Calls

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  • Only smart phones? (Score:2, Interesting)

    by cvtan (752695)
    I assume this only applies to smart phones where people have paid extra for enhanced tracking "features".
    • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday July 14, 2012 @07:04PM (#40651789)
      They can triangulate you without gps.
      • The posts on /. are starting to look like the headlines on rense.com

    • Nope (Score:4, Insightful)

      by FranTaylor (164577) on Saturday July 14, 2012 @07:05PM (#40651805)

      Honestly you really think they aren't putting tracking devices in disposable phones? Wake up and smell the espionage

      • by cpu6502 (1960974)

        Obviously a cellphone has to track you in order to route the calls to your location, but I can't imagine my free phone from VirginMobile "sees everything... my relationship to other human beings and other robots." My phone just makes calls. The end.
         

        • Re:Nope (Score:5, Insightful)

          by History's Coming To (1059484) on Saturday July 14, 2012 @08:23PM (#40652259) Journal
          Nope. The very fact that you've made the call will give a rough geolocation, typically within 20m or so in a city. Other calls can be similarly located, also texts and any other time the phone pings the base stations. Your daily route can be tracked and analysed from day to day. That's just with a basic phone. Connect to the internet and install a Facebook app, well, say goodbye to your privacy in theory.
          • Re:Nope (Score:5, Insightful)

            by symbolset (646467) * on Saturday July 14, 2012 @10:08PM (#40652781) Journal
            You don't have to make a call to be triangulated. That bars signal level indicator, what is it doing? It's pinging every tower in range.
            • not pinging (Score:5, Informative)

              by dutchwhizzman (817898) on Sunday July 15, 2012 @01:09AM (#40653449)

              It's just measuring their signal strength. The pinging happens if the phone wants to change to a different base station, or if it wants to inform the base station it's currently connected to it's still alive. Not that it matters a lot, since they will have a rough log of where you've been for months/years after the fact, depending on how long your cell phone company is required to keep the records. The roughness is because they'll only have the base station you're logged onto and no triangulation, plus the fact that there are multiple minutes in between the time stamps, especially if you're not moving a lot. Once the police has a warrant, the cell phone towers will start pinging you and triangulation will take place with a frequency that can easily be once a minute. Depending on cell density, they might be able to locate you almost as precise as with a GPS.

              With a smart phone, it's a different story. If you have apps that call home regularly to check for messages, you'll typically be exchanging data with base stations much more often. If you have GPS enabled (battery hog, so unlikely for a lot of users) and an app that stores your data (like google on android does themselves), it's dead easy to track you. The alternative, wifi base stations that get logged by google for every android phone unless switched off, is much more common since most people leave wifi on on their phone. Not so accurate as GPS, but within cities, usually sufficient.

          • 20m IS optimistic. Maybe the neighborhood you are in, but not down to 20m.

            symbolset: it's RSSI(Received Signal Strength Indicator) :)
            • It depends on the density of cell towers and your relationship to them, but 20m in urban areas is not unreasonable. If a phone has gps on, you're screwed: you can be placed in a chair.

              Or at least your phone, anyway. Reasonable inferences can be made with a lot of accuracy.

              If you don't want to be tracked with your phone, turn it off and remove its battery. If you want to be tracked really well, any recent Samsung phone with GPS turned on can be very highly geolocated. This isn't to do a put-down on Samsung p

              • by jpapon (1877296)
                What exactly are you doing that you're so worried about people knowing your location?

                I don't really care if people know where I am. What I care about is if they try to contact me or interfere with my movements. Simply having knowledge of my location doesn't really amount to much.

                • Re:Nope (Score:5, Insightful)

                  by History's Coming To (1059484) on Sunday July 15, 2012 @07:13AM (#40654667) Journal
                  You've clearly never been stalked by an ex.

                  The big point here isn't what can be done, but what is done. All of this technology exists, and can be very useful in, for example, locating missing people. It could also be used to track people at protests to identify ringleaders. The technology is already here, we can't close the box, the important thing is whether suitable laws are in place to prevent misuse.
                  • by jpapon (1877296)

                    The technology is already here, we can't close the box, the important thing is whether suitable laws are in place to prevent misuse.

                    I agree. I also find it amusing how so many people on /. scream "information wants to be free" when talking about recordings of music made by someone, but when it comes to THEIR information, they are all up in arms about how evil corporations are for sharing their information with other corporations.

                    • by jpapon (1877296)

                      You are my sworn enemy. Not only do I have to worry about the corporations, I have to worry about their apologists and enablers.

                      I'm not your enemy here, buddy. I'm just trying to have a discussion.

                      Freedom to share music with our friends is very different than freedom to share their personal information.

                      Is it? An artist is selling you some information (a recording of them performing), while specifically telling you that you cannot distribute it without their permission. How is that any different from you giving your personal information to a company, and telling them they cannot distribute it without your permission? I'm not arguing that companies should be able to distribute your information without your consent... I'm simply questioni

                • Re:Nope (Score:5, Interesting)

                  by SternisheFan (2529412) on Sunday July 15, 2012 @08:17AM (#40654823)

                  What exactly are you doing that you're so worried about people knowing your location?

                  I don't really care if people know where I am. What I care about is if they try to contact me or interfere with my movements. Simply having knowledge of my location doesn't really amount to much.

                  Why should you be worrie about people knowing your location? Ask the kid in Long Island, NY, who, after leaving a party one night, was 'tracked' by thugs who used easily purchased 'tracking apps'. He was shot and killed on a highway miles away from that party. All those thugs had to do to track him was to enter his phone into a $30 app. Oh, you can ask that kid, but he can't answer you, because he's DEAD. Dead because he somehow pissed off some thug with an app and a gun somehow. What if one day that kid is you, will 'ease of tracking' still be a non-issue for you?

          • by cpu6502 (1960974)

            >>>Nope. The very fact that you've made the call will give a rough geolocation... and any other time the phone pings the base stations

            I know. I just SAID that: "Obviously a cellphone has to track you in order to route the calls to your location". What are you saying 'nope' to me for? Learn to read the words in front of your face.

      • Re:Nope (Score:5, Interesting)

        by drinkypoo (153816) <martin.espinoza@gmail.com> on Saturday July 14, 2012 @07:38PM (#40651989) Homepage Journal

        Honestly you really think they aren't putting tracking devices in disposable phones?

        No, I don't think they're putting tracking device in disposable phones, but using DTOA from a single sectored antenna is enough to place your location in a pretty narrow arc, and with two antennae you can be located within 30 feet or closer even in very crappy conditions. The phone plus the network is a tracking system whether there's any tracking-specific hardware in the phone.

        However, super-crap phones like the LG I got from tracfone don't have a camera, magnetic sensor, or a lot of other things, so the only things they can do are track my location and maybe listen in on me whether I'm using the phone or not. That's offensive enough, but it doesn't leak as much information as a cleverer phone could.

        • by Phrogman (80473)

          And then the purchases you make with your credit card can be matched to your cellphone location, and the stores you purchase things in, along with what you purchase can be used to build up a profile of the things you like and do etc etc. Individually each thing means nothing but collectively they add up, geolocation is an important factor in that data. Once a company has your data they can sell it - oh they might say they are going to preserve your privacy but nothing prevents them from doing so other than

          • by drinkypoo (153816)

            Well, a list of the yard sales I've stopped at ain't gonna tell them what I've bought, and the vast majority of stuff I own has come from yard sales and flea markets. Almost all of the remainder was mail ordered or bought via the internet, so they are pretty clear on what kind of computer I've got and what calibers of firearm I own, but then again, I live in California so they know what kind of guns I've got anyway.

    • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday July 14, 2012 @07:07PM (#40651831)

      It has been mandated by the FCC since 2001 [pcworld.com] that every cell phone has to be tracked.

      • by cpu6502 (1960974) on Saturday July 14, 2012 @07:47PM (#40652039)

        Supposedly for 911 locating, but I suspect a secondary reason is for 9/11-related locating.

      • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

        of course, that does not work when the battery is out.

        • by PAjamian (679137)

          More and more cellphones today have batteries that cannot be removed by the consumer, though.

          • by nukenerd (172703)
            PAjamian wrote :

            More and more cellphones today have batteries that cannot be removed by the consumer, though.

            But I can switch mine off - can't you? I have a non-smart phone though, if that makes a difference.

            Rsbog wrote :

            Of course [removing the battery] invalidates half it's usefulness - to get calls.

            No, 90% of their usefulness to me is making calls, not receiving them, so I only switch on to make a call. Of course I will switch on if expecting a call, and occasionally to see if I have missed any. So I guess tracking me must be very frustrating for them.

            OTOH, I am not so paranoid as to imagine a marketing droid or policeman is sitting crouched over a screen all day t

        • by rsborg (111459)

          of course, that does not work when the battery is out.

          Of course, neither does the phone. Which invalidates half it's usefulness - to get calls.

    • Nope! (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Greyfox (87712) on Saturday July 14, 2012 @07:08PM (#40651837) Homepage Journal
      The cellular network has to know where you are to route calls to you. Back when they first came out, someone published an article about using cellular information to locate a person with his cell phone to within 36 feet. There is a wealth of information that can be found out about you using your cell phone even if it's a 10 year old completely dumb phone (My parents are still using one of my hand-me-downs from the '90s!)

      Morale of this story is when you go off to murder that guy, leave your cell phone at home (Or stick it in the wife's glove box!) Bin Laden's courier would take the battery out of his until he was in the next town over.

      • by cpu6502 (1960974)

        >>>My parents are still using one of my hand-me-downs from the '90s!

        Thought they switched-off analog cell service? I still have the phone ATT sold me in 1999, but it no longer has any analog signals to intercept.

      • Re:Nope! (Score:5, Interesting)

        by Sipper (462582) on Saturday July 14, 2012 @07:44PM (#40652027)

        The cellular network has to know where you are to route calls to you. Back when they first came out, someone published an article about using cellular information to locate a person with his cell phone to within 36 feet.

        Yes... additionally, last I recall this information is saved for a period of 7 years, which means not only does the phone system know where you are now, but it also knows where you've been. This means that you can be profiled based on the places you go, and thus there's a chance someone can predict where you're going to be at any given time.

        • Re:Nope! (Score:5, Funny)

          by ColdWetDog (752185) on Saturday July 14, 2012 @08:18PM (#40652217) Homepage

          It knows when you are sleeping,
          It knows when you're awake,
          It knows if you've been bad or good,
          so be good for goodness sake!

          I always thought that jingle was pretty creepy.

          • by Dan541 (1032000)

            It knows when you are sleeping,
            It knows when you're awake,
            It knows if you've been bad or good,
            so be good for goodness sake!

            Next Christmas I'm going to hang signs like that underneath the CCTV cameras in London.

        • The cellular network has to know where you are to route calls to you. Back when they first came out, someone published an article about using cellular information to locate a person with his cell phone to within 36 feet.

          Yes... additionally, last I recall this information is saved for a period of 7 years, which means not only does the phone system know where you are now, but it also knows where you've been. This means that you can be profiled based on the places you go, and thus there's a chance someone can predict where you're going to be at any given time.

          I don't suppose you have a reference source for this?

      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        The cellular network has to know where you are to route calls to you.

        Not anymore than it's necessary to know where your TV station's broadcast tower is to receive programming content. It has to know which cell tower(s) your phone can communicate with. Pinpointing someone's location to within a few feet or meters is not necessary to perform the primary function of the phone; Locating a handset to within a narrow geographic footprint is an ancilliary function, and there is no reason for a carrier to maintain logs on a handset's location, travel speed, elevation, etc., except w

      • Morale of this story is when you go off to murder that guy, leave your cell phone at home (Or stick it in the wife's glove box!) Bin Laden's courier would take the battery out of his until he was in the next town over.

        You mean moral?[end grammar-nazi-mode]

        Leaving your cellphone at home would only make you even more suspicious. What, Mr. A. Howard, you didn't have your cellphone with you during the time of the crime?

        Better would be to buy a boxed pre-paid cellphone and use that for planning the evil deed. Th

      • by nospam007 (722110) *

        "Bin Laden's courier would take the battery out of his until he was in the next town over."

        Indeed, look how well that worked.

      • by nukenerd (172703)

        My parents are still using one of my hand-me-downs from the '90s!

        Are you sure they are still using it? I'd still be using mine too if it were not for the fact that the batteries fail after a couple of years and it is practically impossible to find a replacement. Every model of every make seems to use a different type of battery, sometimes forming part of the case itself.

        I once went into Car Phone Warehouse, listed as an "service agent" for my make of phone, and asked for a new battery. The guy looked at me as if I was bonkers. "But sir, he said, this phone is over

    • by zAPPzAPP (1207370) on Saturday July 14, 2012 @07:11PM (#40651851)

      The most basic tracking function is achieved by monitoring the RSSI and cell ID of surrounding signal masts. Possible on any phone.
      Uploading this data can be done over GSM or even SMS, which any old phone can do too. They too have some personal information about you to link with this, but of course not as much as smartphones.

      People often forget that the phone is an autonomous device that can do things on it's own and without showing any of that activity on it's UI side. They only see it do things when they push buttons, so they assume that pushing buttons is a required part for the phone to be able to do things.

      • by Gordonjcp (186804)

        Why would you waste time getting the phone to report RSSI back? You already know the RSSI that the BTS is seeing and can tie that to the phone's IMEI number.

        • by zAPPzAPP (1207370)

          It depends on who 'you' are in this case.

          If 'you' are the service provider, then you know the RSSI of the phone as seen from it's connected cell. You would still like to know other cell RSSIs as seen from the phone, to be able to do a triangulation for a more precise positioning. You need a databank on cell IDs/locations to do this. Google for example has a very good one, that you can gain access to under certain contracts. I'd assume service providers have them anyway. There are also some open databases ou

          • by Gordonjcp (186804)

            Ah, yeah, I guess if you're a third party then you'd need some way to report the information back.

            Incidentally, have you seen OpenCellID [opencellid.org]?

    • E911 (Score:4, Informative)

      by khipu (2511498) on Sunday July 15, 2012 @12:54AM (#40653391)

      No, "enhanced 911" (i.e., the ability of authorities to determine your location) needs to meet these requirements:

      95% of a network operator's in-service phones must be E911 compliant ("location capable") by December 31, 2005. (Several carriers missed this deadline, and were fined by the FCC.)

      Wireless network operators must provide the latitude and longitude of callers within 300 meters, within six minutes of a request by a PSAP. Accuracy rates must meet FCC standards on average within any given participating PSAP service area by September 11, 2012 (deferred from September 11, 2008).

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Enhanced_9-1-1 [wikipedia.org]

  • They're out there, maaaaan!
  • by siddesu (698447) on Saturday July 14, 2012 @07:06PM (#40651819)
    I thought that stopped to be news after the first 20 or so TV mysteries where the police requested the phone details of the murder suspect, so it MUST have been around the first half of the 80s.
    • Yeah it's just another day when the NY Times publishes an article that implicates their best advertisers in a nefarious government plot.

    • I thought that stopped to be news after the first 20 or so TV mysteries where the police requested the phone details of the murder suspect, so it MUST have been around the first half of the 80s.

      What is really difficult is going thru life 'with at least half a brain'... and then realizing
      you're a half up on everyone else around you.

      -AI

      • by siddesu (698447)
        I go through life with at most half a brain, and I am in the same shoes, bro. No words to describe the hardness.
    • by Trepidity (597)

      People carried mobile phones in the early 80s?

    • WHAT? I thought those were early CSI-type science fiction shows!
  • Problem: Private corporations selling our private data in order to sell us more useless shit, tracking our every move, and engaging in behavior that, if it were done in real life, would have them serving 380 million consecutive sentences for stalking.

    Solution: Make it illegal, or begin carpet bombing the offending corporations... and out of the ashes will rise a new government-controlled cellular network. It'll probably cost more, do less, and it'll still track everything you do... but at least they won't

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Letting the FCC boff itself just means that companies will use spectrum for their things, so a cheap baby monitor would stomp on a large amount of bandwidth, or someone's rear view camera on their RV will cause any BlueTooth or Wi-Fi system to be unusable.

  • Exocortex (Score:4, Interesting)

    by VoidEngineer (633446) on Saturday July 14, 2012 @07:13PM (#40651865)
    Can anyone say 'exocortex'? The only thing missing are the right apps and software stack.

    accelerando
    http://manybooks.net/titles/strosscother05accelerando-txt.html [manybooks.net]
  • MoBot. ie Mobile Robot.

    • by cpu6502 (1960974)

      >>>MoBot

      Mighty OrBots. Theyâ(TM)re joining together to fight for whatâ(TM)s right everywhere. Mighty Orbots. Protecting the world from the shadow of evil and doom, Orbots. Champions of justice and truth. (Ohno) (Tor) (Bort) (Bo) (Boo) (Crunch). Go, Mighty Orbots

  • There is a simple solution. Don't have a cell phone.

    • Re:Just say No (Score:4, Insightful)

      by BitterOak (537666) on Saturday July 14, 2012 @07:56PM (#40652095)

      There is a simple solution. Don't have a cell phone.

      That's not as easy as it used to be. When's the last time you saw a phone booth or a pay phone? There are a couple left in the city where I live, but not many. So, what happens when you have an emergency or your car breaks down and you need to call AAA? With the demise of pay phones, cell phones are no longer a luxury, they are a necessity.

      • When's the last time you saw a phone booth or a pay phone?

        Dr. Who fans see one quite frequently.

      • But you can carry an old model, the kind you can turn fully off and even remove the battery, and keep it turned off except if you have to make a call to AAA, the police, or the paramedics. Call friends when you are at home or someplace you don't care if anybody knows you're there.

      • That's not as easy as it used to be. When's the last time you saw a phone booth or a pay phone? There are a couple left in the city where I live, but not many. So, what happens when you have an emergency or your car breaks down and you need to call AAA? With the demise of pay phones, cell phones are no longer a luxury, they are a necessity.

        Even if you need a phone in case of emergency, you don't need to keep it active all the time. Turning it off might be risky (you wouldn't known when the batteries are empty), but "airplane mode" is fine.

  • by alen (225700) on Saturday July 14, 2012 @08:16PM (#40652211)

    i know someone who used to do that when he had his first cell phone years ago. no law says it has to stay on all the time

  • The bit where the outage in the UK cell network caused electronic ankle monitors to fail really gives you some thought...

    The "making calls" stuff is really only an extra feature, and the only reason it's included is in order to listen in.

    • by raodin (708903)

      Not sure why this should be a shocker. Ankle monitors need to report somehow or they aren't much use. Makes sense to use existing infrastructure rather than build a new network.

      • by Gordonjcp (186804)

        Yeah, in that article everyone was banging on about how they shouldn't use mobile networks, they should use PMR frequencies. Right, because inventing your own half-assed network is going to be just so quick and easy and utterly reliable.

        That said, maybe if they had the trackers transmit on VHF lowband it would make it easier to spot tagged offenders - the metre-long aerial sprouting from their ankle would give them away...

  • if we have a device that knows all of our routines, all of our friends, all of our habits, etc., and this predictability can be fed into algorithms to engage us to foster "positive" behavior according to some external agenda, then if we were to engage in new activity, or new social contacts, or go to new places.. then the device we are basically addicted to could discourage us: load our favorite games slower, prevent us from contacting people we really want to talk to, change even our cognition with the typ

    • by BlueStrat (756137)

      i'm not a paranoid schizophrenic, but we are talking about an amazing fantastic control device for locking our behavior into that of perfect little worker bees. maybe not even in overt ways, ie, somebody with an agenda: i'm talking in subtle, unpurposeful ways only visible by analyzing the overall effects of overlapping algorithms

      super creepy dystopian thoughts here

      You mean we could evolve into something like this?

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7yBnl_krN_U [youtube.com]

      Strat

  • off the mark (Score:3, Insightful)

    by PopeRatzo (965947) on Saturday July 14, 2012 @09:23PM (#40652575) Homepage Journal

    An article in the NY Times argues that the devices we call 'cell phones' should instead be called 'trackers.'

    I think it would be more appropriate that police and corporate trackers should instead be called "domestic spies".

    Phones don't track you, people who want to know what you're doing track you. They're the ones that should be called "privacy violating domestic terrorists and trackers".

    I'm sorry, but if someone is tracking you without your expressed, overt permission, they are terrorists.

  • What about smartphones on which you can switch the GPS receiver off? I don't know if this is possible on iOS (wouldn't surprise me if it's not), but my Android phone can switch it off at my discretion.

    Or is this a placebo button?

    • What about smartphones on which you can switch the GPS receiver off? I don't know if this is possible on iOS (wouldn't surprise me if it's not), but my Android phone can switch it off at my discretion.

      Or is this a placebo button?

      Despite what you see on TV cop shows, GPS is itself a passive technology.

      And yes, you can turn it off in iOS. That was a rather silly statement on your part.

      • That statement wasn't all that silly. Most users will never manually control this.

      • by nukenerd (172703)
        His comment was addressed to "you", ie the /. crowd. We are not "most users".

        I found epp_b's comment useful, not silly. I still have a non-smart phone, and when I upgrade it to a smart phone (one day) I now know that it is possible to look for one I can turn off. Many of the comments here have given the impression that you cannot.. Your comment that you can turn off an iOS is also useful, thanks for that, though I won't be buying it.

        I don't give a sh#t that the average person might not bother.
  • 1. Leave cellphone on coffee table
    2. ???
    3. ???
    4. Profit!

  • I understand what they are and that they exist but I thought that "burner" was just TV-cop jargon. Still, as long as the article mentions them, which are best? What's the best way to get one? Assume a maximally-paranoid consumer.

  • We could call cell phones "globals". Say, I hear I'll be able to get a CVI from Google soon! I wonder what "motivational imperative" it will come with?
  • Please continue to tailor the world to my interests, make products I enjoy, and use the data you collect about me to show me things I may enjoy owning/partaking of in the future.

    Sincerely,

    Someone who isn't insane and paranoid.

    P.S. Bring back Firefly, you guys really missed the mark there. Come on.

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